Kanda Jinja (also known as Kanda Myojin) is one of Tokyo’s oldest Shintō shrines.
Founded in 730, the shrine was originally located in Chiyoda-ku, near the Imperial palace; it was moved to its current location in 1603, when Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo).
The shrine’s entrance is unassuming–in fact, you could easily miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
The torii that marks the official approach stands on a downtown street, between a pair of buildings.
The shrine’s main entrance gate sits just beyond the torii.
If you visit, don’t rush past the gate too quickly. It’s a work of art, covered with colorful, highly detailed carvings:
and spectacular finials:
Beyond the gate lies the shrine’s main yard. (The building at the far end is the worship hall.)
Although the shrine sits smack in the middle of Tokyo, not far from busy Ueno Park, the yard is far more silent than I expected. Kanda Shrine feels like a peaceful oasis, tucked away between the busy streets.
During the Edo Period, Kanda Shrine was considered the tutelary shrine of all Edo–the kami (deities) enshrined here are believed to watch over businesses, marriages, and families, ensuring prosperity in these endeavors and protecting people from accidents and illness.
During the Meiji Period, Kanda Shrine was considered the official guardian shrine of Tokyo. The entire shrine was rebuilt in 1923, after an earthquake. Most of the buildings survived the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, although some of them were rebuilt (and all were refurbished) after the end of World War II. The shrine had another facelift in 2005, which brought it to its current, beautiful condition.
When visiting Japan, and particularly in Tokyo, I like to visit as many shrines and temples as possible, especially shrines like Kanda Jinja that don’t appear on the “top ten” tourist lists. A huge amount of Japanese history lies in shrines like these, which are important to Japan even though the tour buses often pass them by.
Like many other things in life, the unexpected, small adventures in Japan are often great sources of history, beauty, and enjoyment.
My newest Hiro Hattori novel, BETRAYAL AT IGA, features a welcome feast gone horribly wrong.
In medieval Japan (and in traditional homes to this day) the tables looked quite different from the ones in Western homes. While Europeans used waist-high tables and sat in elevated chairs, Japanese tables looked like this:
People knelt (or sometimes sat cross-legged) on cushions placed directly on the floor.
In poorer homes, or on occasions when formal tables were not used, families ate while sitting or kneeling around the irori, a sunken hearth with a bed of fine dirt or sand upon which fires were kindled.
The irori was also used to heat the home, and the smoke from the fire helped keep the thatch in the roof in good condition, both by keeping it dry and by discouraging insects.
Characters in my novels often sit, eat, or talk around the hearth, much as their real historical counterparts would have done through much of Japanese history.
(Photos taken at Nihon Minka-en, the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum in Kawasaki City, Japan.)
When traveling, many people struggle with the “foreignness” of food and drinks, seeking comfortable (read: familiar) dining options.
While I understand the desire for familiarity, especially where food is concerned, I take the opposite approach in Japan–and discovered some amazing, tasty treats along the way.
Case in point: the local beverages of Magome.
Magome (or Magome-juku) lies in Gifu Prefecture, northeast of Kyoto, in the Japan Alps. This mountainous region is home to many orchards and vineyards, and produces some of Japan’s finest fermented and non-fermented juice-based beverages.
Upon arriving in Magome, I noticed a small beverage store just two doors down from Magomechaya, the minshuku (guesthouse) where I stayed. I wandered in, hoping to find some local drinks to try.
I don’t consume much alcohol–and drink even less when traveling, due to all the hiking (and sleeping) I do on the road–but I’d heard good things about this region’s wines, and when I saw a local apple wine, in little bottles . . .
I love apples in any form, so this was a no-brainer.
I’m lucky the bottle was small, because the wine didn’t taste like alcohol. It tasted like sweet-and-tangy apple juice, without any tannins or aftertaste. While drinking it, I kept checking the bottle to be sure I’d read the label correctly–this didn’t taste like wine! (It tasted delicious – much better than most wines.)
Halfway through the bottle, I realized it was, in fact, alcoholic, so I took my time finishing it off. I’ll buy it again, for certain, when I’m back in Gifu–sadly, I doubt it’s available elsewhere in Japan.
Since I already had one boozy option, I opted to make the second selection non-alcoholic (more than one drink a night, and I’m likely facing a headache in the morning–not the smartest thing on a hiking day). The little shop had five different juices made from local grapes, but I’m a sucker for “Concord” so I chose this lovely, dark purple treat.
100% real juice, from local grapes. It was the best grape juice–and one of the tastiest juices of any kind–I’ve ever tasted. Not too sweet, and filled with flavor. Each sip was like biting into a juicy, perfectly-ripened grape.
When traveling–in Japan or elsewhere–take the time to sample the local treats and beverages. They may not be familiar, but you’ll find some delicious things!
During my autumn 2016 research trip to Japan, I spent three nights on the Nakasendo–the “Central Mountain Route” that once connected Kyoto with Edo (now Tokyo) via the Japan Alps.
Since the southernmost part of the Nakasendo overlays the even older Kisoji–a travel road that will feature in an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery novel, I focused my time on Magome, the southernmost post town, which has been restored to its Edo Period condition and preserved as a slice of living history.
Most visitors leave Magome at 5pm, on the final bus for Nakatsugawa (the closest railway station, and major town, about 30 minutes away). In autumn, this occurs just as the sun disappears below the Western horizon, leaving the sky alight with evening fire.
The mountains surrounding Magome turn purple and grey, the temperature drops, and on the night I visited, the moon shone brightly over the silent town.
The shops and restaurants close around 5 pm, when the final buses leave. About 30 minutes later, lanterns appeared on the street that runs the length of Magome. I didn’t see who set them out–I’d gone to my room for a jacket, because the temperature dropped fast and the wind picked up when the sun went down.
The scents of grilling fish and vegetables danced lightly through the evening air, mingling with the stronger smell of wood smoke and the chilly mountain breezes–fresh but biting–that swept down the hill as evening darkened into night. Although the day tourists had gone home, the residents and overnight visitors prepared for dinner or walked the streets, enjoying the sunset and the mountains’ silent beauty.
I returned to my room for dinner (my fish allergy prevented me from joining the other guests in Magomechaya’s dining room, but I didn’t mind) and afterward returned to the darkened street for a second evening walk.
It was only 7:30 pm, but the streets had grown completely dark except for the lanterns running away in both directions, up and down the hill. The winds had grown stronger, making me glad I’d thought to wear my gloves as well as my jacket.
The memorial outside the home of novelist Shimazaki Tōson was lit up by night:
As were a number of other trees, which seemed eager to display their brilliant foliage even in the dark of night:
The wood and paper lanterns read “Nakasendo” (big surprise…) and flickered gently as if lit by tapers, though the lights inside were actually battery-powered LEDs.
I would have loved to stay out longer, but I had an early start the following morning, hiking the preserved portion of the Nakasendo between Magome and neighboring Tsumago. Also, my hands were freezing even through my gloves, and although my jacket cut the chill somewhat, I was eager to return to the warmth of my guest room and the bottle of local apple wine I’d bought to toast my first night in the alps.
I returned to Magomechaya’s welcoming glow:
…and found my bottle of apple wine waiting and nicely chilled from sitting on the windowsill (where I’d left it during my evening walk for just that purpose).
Magome in daylight can be busy, exciting, and filled with things to do and taste and see, allowing visitors to walk backwards in time to Japan’s medieval age. But in the evening, after dark, the town remembers its history even more clearly. The streets grow silent, the lanterns glow, and you can almost hear the whispered voices of samurai in the wind.
I’m traveling home from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference today, but in the interim, please head over to Murder is Everywhere to learn about my recent visit to a most unusual Tokyo cafe.
AN OWLING GOOD TIME IN TOKYO
I think you’ll agree with me … this one’s a hoot.
(Click here to start the series of posts on the Nakasendo from the beginning.)
During Japan’s medieval age, the Nakasendo was the primary northern travel route connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. The southern end of the Nakasendo tracks the course of an older travel road, the Kisoji, which connected the mountain towns of the Kiso Valley.
A preserved and restored portion of the old Nakasendo/Kisoji runs through the mountains between the southernmost post towns of Magome and Tsumago. The 8.5 km (just over 5 mile) journey takes between 2 and 4 hours, and includes some breathtaking views of the Kiso Valley.
On the morning I made the hike, I rose before dawn–an easy thing to do when staying in Magome, because the town’s emergency speakers play a lovely, haunting melody at 6:30am. I woke to the sound of music, and although my alarm wasn’t set to go off for another 30 minutes, the sky was light enough to hike so I decided to hit the trail.
I left before breakfast, but carried some snacks–a bottle of tea and some fresh senbei (rice crackers) I’d purchased from a vendor the night before. (Travel tip: if you visit Magome, the senbei shop next door to the inn called Magomechaya has some of the best fresh senbei in all of Japan.)
The first bus from Nakatsugawa doesn’t arrive in Magome until 8am, and the minshuku (guesthouses) don’t serve breakfast until 7, so most hikers don’t hit the trail until at least 7:30. When I left at 6:30 I was the only person on the street.
In fact, with one exception, I didn’t see another human being until I was more than halfway to Tsumago.
The air smelled fresh and cold, with a bite that promised frost in the next few days, although I saw none on the ground. Birds chirped in the trees. A chilly wind blew down the mountain, amplified by the narrow road that runs through Magome. I stopped to put on my gloves, and continued walking.
When I reached the uppermost end of the town, I saw the medieval signpost across the road. I stopped for some pictures (removing my gloves), but since the sun hadn’t yet appeared above the mountains my images were either backlit or heavily in shadow.
Passing the signpost, I headed north along the trail past fields of lotus and local vegetables. While tourism makes up a large part of Magome’s economy, much of the Kiso Valley remains agricultural, as it has been for thousands of years.
As I walked, the sky to the east grew increasingly brilliant. A glow appeared at the crest of the mountains, and I paused beside a lotus field to watch the sun appear.
Nearby, a crow gave a raucous call. Not far away, a second one answered. The first one took flight, leaving me once again alone with the sun.
I caught myself grinning, despite the chill that stung my ears and fingers. Donning my gloves, I continued up the road . . . and startled at the sight of an elderly Japanese couple just ahead, standing in their field watching the sunrise. They seemed equally startled to see me approaching. (Based on past experiences, most Japanese hikers seem to start a little later than I do.)
We exchanged bows, and I continued on my way.
The start of the Nakasendo trail is easy to find (and well marked throughout) and as soon as I reached it, the gravel path I’d followed out of Magome gave way to the older stones of the historical travel road.
With the rising sun my only companion, I shouldered my day pack and headed up the trail and back in time.
(The Nakasendo adventure will continue next week – but I hope you’ll come back later this week for my dispatches from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference, which kicks off this Thursday in Denver, Colorado!)
Today is Labor Day in the United States — a federal holiday (established as such in 1894) commemorating the contributions of working people and the efforts of the labor movement.
Most of us celebrate Labor Day with a notable absence of labor–banks and many shops are closed, people have the day off work and school, and it’s the “last hurrah” of summer (although, given the sweltering weather here in Sacramento, I’d say summer isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel).
I love Labor Day, because it’s a sign that my favorite season–autumn–is approaching. Soon, summer’s heat will fade to brisk, cold nights and mornings with a chilly snap in the air. We don’t get as much autumn foliage in Sacramento as other places do, but some of the neighborhood trees do their best to put on a colorful show.
Last year, I was fortunate to spend part of autumn’s foliage season in Japan, including several lovely hikes in the Japan alps and on sacred Mount Koya.
Now, as autumn rolls back around, I’m looking forward to sharing photos and stories from those climbs.
I know a lot of people love summer, but autumn will always have my heart.
Are you looking forward to autumn leaves? What’s your favorite season?
(To start this series from the beginning, click here.)
As the sun went down on my first day in the restored Edo-period post town of Magome, I decided to rest my hike-weary feet in one of the teahouses that lined the sloping street.
Although I had several options, I decided to try Yomogiya, an inviting-looking teahouse that sat next door to my minshuku (guest house or traditional inn).
The sign out front suggested the teahouse also offered coffee – and although tea is the traditional choice, I love good coffee, so I decided to go inside and let the menu make the decision for me.
Like many teahouses in Magome, Yomogiya offers guests a choice between traditional Japanese seating on an elevated platform and Western-style tables and chairs, which sit on the teahouse floor.
Unlike Western tables, traditional Japanese tables are low–about knee high–and feature cushions for kneeling (or sitting cross-legged) rather than Western chairs.
I love traditional Japanese seating, so I left my shoes at the entrance and chose a table on the platform.
In addition to selling coffee, tea, and traditional sweets, Yomogiya sold a variety of local crafts, including these hand-carved wooden lanterns:
If I’d had a way to get one home, I definitely would have splurged on one. The photo doesn’t do them justice.
Within moments after my arrival, the hostess greeted me and offered me a menu. Although I could have read the Japanese version, the one she presented was written in English–a typical experience for Westerners traveling in Japan.
Most Japanese people want to make foreign visitors feel welcome, and if an English menu is available, most restaurants and teahouses will offer it if you look like you speak English.
The hot apple juice sounded fantastic, and I was tempted to try it, but I love traditional Japanese sweets, especially the chestnut varieties offered only in the autumn. The “chestnut yokan” (a type of jellied sweet with a base of adzuki beans) was only available on the set menu, which included both the sweet and a choice of green tea, “blend coffee” or matcha–a powdered form of green tea prepared with a special whisk that this menu translates as “green tea for ceremonies.”
I love matcha, but opted for the coffee because I thought it would match better with the chestnut sweet.
(I probably could have finished the apple juice as well, but it would have been awkward to order two drinks since I was there alone, so I decided to save the apple juice for another time.)
My treats arrived within a couple of minutes, and the yokan was everything I hoped for.
This type of sweet has a texture a lot like a cross between fudge and caramel. It’s slightly chewy, but not too sticky, and moderately sweet without being cloying. If you don’t like roasted chestnuts, this won’t be a favorite–but I love them, and this tasted exactly like a sweetened roasted chestnut paste. (Although it’s made with adzuki beans, there’s no taste of bean at all.)
The lacquered knife at the bottom of the plate is a traditional implement used for eating this kind of sweet. You use it both as a cutting tool and as an ersatz fork – slicing a piece of the sweet from the cube and poking the tip of the knife into it to raise the sweet to your mouth.
I savored my sweets and coffee, listening to the hum of quiet conversation from the tables around me and watching through the window as the setting sun made the wooden building across the street glow with a golden-orange hue. It was the perfect ending to a happy, peaceful day in the Japanese alps.
(To start this series from the beginning with a night in a Japanese guest house, click here!)
Magome (also called “Magome-juku”) is a preserved post town in the Japan alps which was once the last of the stations on the Kisoji, an ancient travel road that passed through the alps from north to south. Later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) Magome served as the 43rd station on the Nakasendo–the northern travel road connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto.
Today, Magome and neighboring Tsumago (the next post town to the north along the Kisoji and Nakasendo routes) have been preserved and restored to their Edo-period state, allowing visitors to experience a taste of life in historical Japan.
Magome hugs the side of a fairly steep slope, with buildings along both sides of the former travel road.
Vehicular traffic is not permitted on the road that runs through town, so visitors have to see the sights on foot–exactly as they did when Magome was a thriving post town on the Kisoji and Nakasendo.
Wealthy samurai could travel by palanquin:
And bearers still carry them through the streets on occasion, although now they’re just for show.
Visitors arrive by bus at either the “upper” or “lower” end of town. I arrived at the lower end, where I discovered a restaurant selling the local specialty, gohei mochi: pounded rice flour formed into balls and grilled in a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and walnuts.
I ate many of these during my time in Magome, and at approximately $1 a skewer, they’re an excellent bargain.
After leaving the restaurant, I started up the hill. Right after the initial curve, the road passes by an old water wheel and sawmill:
Since the entire town is restored to its Edo period state, a walk through Magome feels like stepping backward in time, from the shops selling souvenirs:
To the restaurants (note the traditional menu, which has the day’s offerings painted on wooden slats and on paddles hung outside, to the left of the door):
And the minshuku (family inns) like Magomechaya (where i stayed) and Tajimaya (below), which even had persimmons drying from the rafters on traditional racks.
There are also many restored buildings that don’t house shops or restaurants, which function as family homes, museums, or merely sites of architectural interest.
At the upper end of town, the medieval signpost where the shogun (the military leader of Japan through most of the medieval period and into the Edo period) posted notices still exists – and though it no longer has information about new laws or wanted men, it’s still a fascinating piece of Japanese history.
Beyond the signpost, the Nakasendo winds through the mountains and across a pass to Tsumago, the next town north of Magome and another stop along the Kisoji and the Nakasendo.
Hikers often walk the route–as I did, during my stay–but that’s a story for another day.
Do you think, if you visit Japan, you’d might visit Magome? I hope you do!
Research for my upcoming Hiro Hattori novels allows me to travel widely in Japan, and whenever possible I try to stay in traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) and guesthouses (minshuku).
People often ask about the difference between ryokan and a minshuku – and although accommodations vary, minshuku are generally more like a family-run bed and breakfast than a full-service inn. For example, guests at a minshuku typically make their own beds, and the bathrooms are often located down the hall (as opposed to having private ones en suite). Minshuku are often (though not always) less expensive, too, though depending on the area and the inn in question, the experience can vary widely.
Last autumn, I spent some time on the old Nakasendo–a historical travel road through the Kiso Valley, in the Japan Alps, that once served as the primary northern travel route between Tokyo (then Edo) and Kyoto. There’s a lovely well-preserved stretch of the road between the medieval post towns of Magome and Tsumago, and I used Magome as my base of operations.
In Magome, I stayed at Magomechaya–a minshuku owned by a third-generation innkeeper whose family has lived in Magome for over 100 years.
(The owners are lovely people, and the owner’s wife speaks English, so if you want to visit Magome–whether or not you speak Japanese–I recommend Magomechaya highly.)
Upon arriving in Magome, I set off up the hill to find the guest house. I’d been warned that the hill was steep, and that the only road (too narrow for cars, and open to pedestrian traffic only) was covered in cobblestones–a challenge for roller bags–so I packed light.
Magomechaya sits about halfway up the hill – a 5-7 minute walk if you’re in decent shape and not dragging a heavy bag. If you’re out of shape or overpacked, 10-15 minutes is more accurate.
The inn is easy to spot; it has a large sign, in English and Japanese, reading MAGOMECHAYA GUESTHOUSE:
Also, the building across the road (Magomechaya’s annex and kitchen/dining area) has a lovely water wheel in front:
Most of the guest rooms are located in the main building:
But since I was writing, the owners offered to let me stay in the annex, directly across the road, which was quieter because I was the only person staying there at the time. (It was amazing at night, when I lay in my silent room and listened to the wind whistling outside the window.)
The ground floor of the annex is also the dining room for the entire minshuku, where guests are served breakfast and dinner. (Room rates include both dinner and breakfast, although guests with special dietary needs or who only want the room can also reserve “room only” at a lower rate.)
Guests leave their shoes at the base of the staircase before going up to the guest rooms.
Upstairs, the rooms branch off of a single hallway, and the bathroom is located at the far end of the hall. (My room was the first door on the left in this photo.)
The guest rooms are furnished in traditional style, with tatami floors, sliding windows and doors, and a tokonoma:
(Note: The futon was new, and does not have a divot in the center - that’s the fault of my shaky hands while taking the panoramic shot.)
The guest rooms were impeccably clean, and had a heater/air conditioning unit with a remote control – as well as a spectacular view of the town and the alps beyond.
As the sun began to set, the day-tripping crowds cleared out, leaving me alone to explore the gorgeous, preserved post town of Magome–and I’ll take you there in the next installment of this series!
To reach Magome for your own adventure: Take a train to Nakatsugawa Station, and then a bus (it runs regularly, but check the schedule) to Magome. The bus lets off at the “downhill” end of the post town, so be prepared for an uphill hike to see the town or to reach your minshuku. No vehicular traffic is allowed within Magome itself, so if you can’t walk uphill, or significant distances, plan to visit Tsumago instead.
To learn more about Magome, and see the sights, click here!